Syriana: It’s Not About the Oil

I went to see the new Warner Bros. political thriller Syriana over the weekend (going to the movies is a rare treat when you’re the parent of a young child). For most people, movies are entertainment and escapism (for that, I took my 6-year-old daughter to Chicken Little, which is my more usual moviegoing fare as a parent), and Syriana is certainly an entertaining movie – but it’s also a serious movie about a serious subject that confronts today’s reality rather than escaping from it. It’s not a blockbuster movie (King Kong brought in $50.1 million over the weekend, nearly 10 times more than Syriana, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has grossed $252.2 million, more than 10 times what Syriana has made), but Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called Syriana a “great film” that is “exciting, fascinating, absorbing, diabolical, and really quite brilliant.” What I liked about Syriana as a movie was its complexity and ambiguity with no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and no easy answers to the questions and problems posed by the movie (don’t worry, I’m not going to write a movie review or be a spoiler for those of you who haven’t yet seen it).

It would easy to characterize Syriana as a “lefty” movie – especially since the film’s producers, Participant Productions (other movies include Good Night and Good Luck and North Country), teamed with the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council to create Oil Change, a campaign to reduce dependence on oil. There’s a certain anti-capitalism tone to the movie since one of the many ultimately interrelated plots is how the oil company executives of Connex and Killen seem to only care about getting rich and are willing to do almost anything at anyone’s expense to make more money. And there’s this memorable monologue where Danny Dalton (played by Tim Blake Nelson) tells Bennett Holiday (played by Jeffrey Wright):

“Corruption ain’t nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets.

“Corruption is how we win.”

It’s probably safe to say that the filmmakers are not particularly pro-deregulation and pro-free markets and trade. However, even if its perspective is liberal-leaning, it would be a mistake to dismiss Syriana as a movie not worth watching.

Syriana is an important movie because it is a metaphor for the problems of U.S. foreign policy. The central premise of the movie is that U.S. dependence on foreign oil – particularly from the Middle East – makes oil a U.S. national security interest. Yet this conventional wisdom is at the heart of what is wrong with U.S. Middle East and national security policy. To be sure, the United States depends on imported oil for more than half of the oil it uses. But nearly half of the oil imported into the United States comes from North and South America, and only about 24 percent of U.S.-imported oil comes from the Persian Gulf.

Even more important than the percentage of oil imported by the United States is the fact that oil is a commodity traded openly on the worldwide market. With no other meaningful sources of revenue, the oil-rich Gulf countries must sell their oil, and once the oil is sold on the world market, they cannot control where it ends up. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Morris Adelman points out: “The world oil market, like the world ocean, is one great pool. The price is the same at every border. Who exports the oil Americans consume is irrelevant.”

The myth of oil dependence perpetuates the myth that the price of oil must be kept “affordable.” However, the reality is that the price of oil is determined by supply and demand, not by some perception of what it should cost. Thus, according to Adelman: “Those who want the United States to produce its way out of the ‘problem,’ and those who want Americans to conserve their way out, are both the victims of an illusion. There is no shortage or gap, only a high price.” And even a higher price of oil is not an absolute certainty, as other nations might increase their outputs in an effort to increase their revenues. Indeed, even OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members cheat by increasing production over their quotas to increase revenues even as the organization is trying to constrain the supply of oil to maximize price.

Ultimately, the realities of the economics of oil do not justify the U.S. obsession with Middle East oil and the need for special relationships with the regimes in the region to secure access to the oil, which is the central plot line in Syriana. Prince Nasir (played by Alexander Siddig), an heir apparent to the throne of a fictitious Gulf country, is more interested in social and economic reform for his country than in catering to U.S. business interests and so grants natural-gas drilling rights to a higher-bidding Chinese company instead of renewing the country’s long-held contract with Texas energy company Connex (a perfectly economically rational and free-market decision). As a result, Dean Whiting (played by Christopher Plummer) – head of the law firm employed by Connex, and a D.C. power broker – tries to undo Nasir’s deal with the Chinese by promoting his younger brother Prince Meshal (played by Akbar Kurtha), who will cater to American business interests, to be the aging emir’s choice for succession. And ultimately, the CIA views the question of succession as a national security issue.

I said I wasn’t going to be a spoiler, so I’m not going to say what happens in the movie. But it should be abundantly clear that the plot closely resembles the conduct of U.S. policy with regard to Saudi Arabia. Yet U.S. security interests are not well served by a needlessly cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family and pictures of President Bush holding Crown Prince Abdullah’s hand at the president’s Texas ranch. At best, the relationship is an alliance of convenience – but even then it’s for the wrong reason: oil. At worst, it’s American hypocrisy – supporting an oppressive, theocratic monarchy in Riyadh that does not comport with American values. And it is one of the reasons we have a terrorist threat represented by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Many people are likely to view the ending as unsatisfactory. It’s not neat and tidy. Instead of closure, there are hanging unanswered questions. Will CIA operative Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) make good on his promise to Dean Whiting? How will the emir react to the fate of his son, Prince Nasir? Will energy trader Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon) reconcile with his wife Julie (played by Amanda Peet)? What will be the blue-eyed Egyptian’s next move? How will the fortunes of Connex-Killen ultimately fare? And what of the mysterious Stan (played by William Hurt)? Without saying how it ends, the ending of Syriana is abrupt, unresolved, and indecisive – seeming to go nowhere. Again, this is a metaphor for the current state of U.S. foreign policy – stuck and unable to move in a different direction. As long as we cling to the myth of needing to protect access to Middle East oil – fueled by refusing to understand the economics of oil – we will continue to make the same mistakes, regardless of which political party is in power.

Although the makers of Syriana intended the movie to be a vehicle for promoting a message about reducing dependence on oil – and perhaps a more liberal foreign policy in support of such – I think the movie also underscores the problems of U.S. interventionism, in both national security and business. More liberal-leaning viewers will likely conclude that the problem of U.S. interventionism is that we make the wrong choices, but I think the real message of Syriana is that the problem is interventionism itself. It’s not a question of being able to make the right choices (indeed, the complexities of the interrelated plot lines of Syriana illustrate that we are just as likely to make wrong choices and even if so-called right choices are made there is likely to be blowback – because we are not dealing with putting together pieces of a puzzle but a kaleidescope, where when you change one thing everything else also changes and a completely new and unpredictable pattern emerges), but that the United States should not interfere in the internal affairs of another country when U.S. national security is not at stake – and oil is not a U.S. national security interest. Moreover, the U.S. government should not be in the business of advancing or protecting U.S. business interests in foreign countries – especially if doing so endangers U.S. national security. In the end it’s not about shaking our addiction to oil, it’s about shedding all our false addiction to oil.

It’s a cliché, but Syriana is a movie where, unfortunately, art imitates life. That is part of what makes the movie interesting and entertaining. Had the filmmakers portrayed a noninterventionist U.S. foreign policy, it wouldn’t have been a political thriller and the movie would probably have been less than entertaining (and probably never made), but I think the ending would have been a better outcome. In that respect, Syriana represents an opportunity for life to learn from art.


Syriana was suggested and inspired by ex-CIA case officer Robert Baer’s book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002). But the themes of the movie are more connected to Baer’s second book, Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003).

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a former high-ranking White House national security official (hint: he quit the Bush administration) about oil and national security. He talked about the need for the United States to become more energy-independent, but also the need to assure access to Gulf oil to prevent oil prices going to $100 a barrel. I countered that energy independence was a chimera, pointing out to him that the UK has for all intents and purposes achieved energy independence via North Sea drilling yet still pays the world market price for oil. I also argued that oil going to $100 a barrel wasn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. This conversation took place in the midst of the summer spike in gas prices, and I told him that one result of rising oil prices was that suddenly it was becoming profitable to drill for oil in places that were previously considered too expensive to drill. For example, Canada actually sits on top of the second-largest oil reserves in the world, and higher oil prices have made it more economically viable to extract oil from the Alberta oil sands. Moreover, I argued that if oil prices went up high enough, that would provide the real impetus to explore alternative forms of energy that would be more cost-effective. But as long as oil is cheaper than other sources of energy (regardless of the absolute price of oil), there is no economic incentive to pursue unprofitable alternative energy sources. Ultimately, I argued to allow the economics of oil run their natural course and stop thinking about oil as a national security issue. I don’t know that I changed his mind, but he conceded that my argument had merit. If I at least got him to think more about how we think about oil, then maybe we can eventually rid ourselves of our false addiction to oil. (I’ve subsequently found out that this person actually screened Syriana prior to its release. I’ll have to find out what he thought and take up our conversation where it left off.)

The absurdity of the “oil is a national security issue” argument is illustrated by the recent hoopla surrounding Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) attaching a provision to open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling as part of a defense bill that would provide money for troops in Iraq and relief for Hurricane Katrina victims (Stevens’ maneuver was defeated by the Senate). Stevens argued that drilling for oil in ANWR is a matter of national security to meet demand and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Yet according to my former Cato colleague Jerry Taylor:

“Even if you’re happy digging up the tundra, there’s little reason to think that drilling in ANWR will do much to bring down energy prices. Industry’s best estimate is that ANWR could produce about 1 million barrels of oil per day at its peak. That’s a 1.25 percent increase in global production that, all things being equal, would reduce world oil prices by about 10 percent, from $25 per barrel to $22.50. While that’s nice, it wouldn’t do much of anything to deliver America from the power of the OPEC cartel, particularly since OPEC’s likely reaction would be to cut its own production in order to maintain world crude prices at today’s levels.”

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.